Authorship is an odd word, one that, for us wordsmiths, conjures up the image of Dickens, Shakespeare, Austin, and Whitman sailing off into the sunset together for fame and pirate glory. (Oo! Book idea!) But more than an odd word, it’s also an odd and slippery concept.
What does it mean to be an author? The term has changed so much. These days it means you’re “published.” Anyone else who writes, whether they have completed anything or not, is merely an “aspiring” author. I’ve written a whole blog post about this concept, so I’ll spare you all the rehash.
My personal issues with the moniker “aspiring” aside, the issue is still odd. One thing that has really changed in the last 100 years or so is the author’s importance. The author is king these days... well, we don’t have kings anymore, we have celebrities, and that’s pretty true too. J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer make E! News on a regular basis. And have you seen the James Patterson commercial?
But that’s not what I’m talking about, really. What I mean is that the author’s opinion on their own work is king, and all work is sacrosanct. These days, you wouldn’t dare take someone else’s story and rewrite it to make it better. A few hundred years ago, that would be THE thing to do. Shakespeare made his entire career out of it, just to name one. These days, you’d just get sued (especially if you touch the work of a certain sue-happy Scottish writer we all know and love).
So maybe you can’t pick up your favorite “dirty secret” novel (that pulpy novel you love, despite the terrible prose) and rewrite it so that it finally actualizes its potential... at least not if you want your writing to see the light of day. However, if you go back a bit in time and find something in the public domain... things are free game.
I’m not talking about being inspired by a story, or “retelling” it in a different time period (ala 10 Things I Hate About You, a movie I can, sad to say, quote at length*). I’m talking about taking the actual text (Project Gutenberg would be helpful here) and injecting your own writing. Make it up to date. Change the time setting maybe, or add aliens. Or zombies. Whatever your heart desires. Make the story your own.
It’s a tough and gutsy thing to do. If you don't do it right, readers will hate you. There are only two ways it would work:
1) Take something unknown and pulpy and make it relevant and interesting.
2) Take something extremely well-known (in the manner of the fore-linked Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and be completely irreverent with the source text. The more readers can tell you’re having fun, the better.
It is perhaps possible to be reverent to a well-known source text and not have readers hate you. However, in order for them to know you’re not so arrogant as to think you can improve on Jane Austin, you will need to change it up a lot. And I mean, a lot. As in, bring on the aliens, or at least a modern prep school with plaid skirts. Something.
Anyway, I hope you find this as inspiration. Break free of the “king author” mindset, and rip some classic work of literature to shreds.
Shakespeare would be proud of you.
*For example: "I'm down. I got the 411, and you're not going and getting jiggy with some boy. I don't care how dope his ride is. My mamma didn't raise no fool."
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